My Advent koan in my back pocket for now, I refocused on my mission: To find Max’s. The man had given me a window that I didn’t want to get thrown out of it so I had to subjugate all my heightened senses and propensity toward more propensity, and locate the house. In Old Bisbee, parking is at a premium and many homes are built into the sides of the surrounding hills. I grew up a flat lander in Las Vegas. The only turns I ever made in Glitter Gulch were the ones of the 90 degree variety.
I rounded, I turned and climbed, I backed up, I rounded some more. Then, there he was, Max stood there silhouetted by the flames, orange and red danced all around him. Like Prometheus, he had absconded with some holy fire which would help bring us together under the perfect night.
He guided me into one of the narrow parking spots available. I walked up the steps more than a little anxious. I knew Max less well than I new Adam. In the period of less than twelve hours I had invited myself to the homes of both men. Max knew my position in town, liked to joke with me about the church, and on occasion spoke about his negative experience at parochial school. Without knowing it, when he invited me to participate in Bisbee’s annual art car parade, that inclusion affirmed me independent of my clerical vocation.
As a young man, from college studies on, much of my identity had been wrapped up in my desire to be a priest, my study to be a priest, my long-term delay in being made a priest, and then my actual ordination and work as a priest. This is not to say I didn’t have friends and associates that didn’t participate in Christian community, but most of my life was lived, up and until the expansive time in my life about which I write, within the confines of the church. This was especially true once I began to serve full-time in the church. Not only my affinity for the faith dominate my life, but so did the professional requirements on my time.
I liked Max because it seemed like what ever he did, it stipulated to life. He and his wife, Sam, owned and operated an art gallery in the heart of town. On the wall there hung Sam’s paintings. In other parts of the gallery a life-size bear made of mesquite twigs crouched about. Several intricate wooden inventions, all connected and working together, their purpose nothing more than enjoyment and creativity, filled the corners of the gallery. I thought of Max as the Willy Wonka of Bisbee, not because he was all that fond of children or orange small people, but because creativity had captured him and he was gifted enough to respond to it in some very unique ways.
As I climbed his stairs, I grew concerned how he was going to respond to me. He invited me to sit and took a seat next to mine. Anticipating that he feared I might be there to inquire as to his long term plans for the after-life, or to ask him for money, I preempted the conversation and called upon my people skills to warm him to my visit.
“Max, I’ve been smoking marijuana. It’s going very well so far.”
“I see, Padre.”
“I haven’t done it for twenty-five years.”
Max still seemed a little leery.
“That’s a long time, Padre.”
“I’ve been wrapped a little tight.”
“Well, I’m glad it’s helpful.”
“Max. I have a little bit of marijuana with me.” I patted down my Levi jacket, assuring myself it was still there. “Would you like to have some?”
“No thanks. It’s not my drug of choice.” Max got up and stirred the blazing fire with a stick. “Stay her, Padre, I’ll go get us something to snack on.”
“Very nice, Sir Max. Thank you for your hospitality. I won’t keep you long.”
“Good, I don’t stay up late.”
I had made it through. I passed the interview, and at least for that moment, I was in. The fire warmed me and offered another moment of sacred connection. Trained to think and look for the sacred in the sanctioned and liturgical expressions of church life, glimpses into the manifestations of God in other circumstances such as a Sunday night fire with a half smoked joint and a new, albeit, cautious friend, were vistas into uncharted territory. Getting rundown with the staid and predictable tasks of my church work, especially to the congregations, I welcomed any freshness to help me appreciated the reality of the divine, even if needed green to experience it.
Max returned to the fire with wine and cheese, some water for me, and a bottle of his wine. Sam joined us for a bit, tossed their cat a few times in the air, then retired to bed. I felt that she was okay with my visit.
Alone with Max, I asked if it was okay to retrieve and imbibe of the gift Adam had given me.
“Is it okay if I smoke this?”
“Sure. Light it up.”
“Really?” I looked around for the authorities. “We won’t get in trouble?”
“Trouble?” Max made the half laugh I’d come to enjoy. “It’s Bisbee for Chrissake. C’mon Padre. Where you been?”
“Thank you, Max, for your kindness.” I retrieved the aluminum from the pocket. “As I stated earlier, I don’t get out much. I’ve been wrapped a little tight.”
“I guess so.”
Appreciating Maz’s teasing, I unwrapped my aluminum apothecary. Max’s interest in my continued enjoyment of the evening touched me and, overall, I felt pretty good with how I was handling myself at his place.
I was a little embarrassed that I had nothing with which to ignite my J. I found a full box of wooden matches that I assumed Max had used to start his fire. I held the joint to my lips, struck the match on the box with Max’s assistance. The same orange and red flames that formed Max’s halo earlier jumped off the match stick and attacked me with fervor! I damn near burned half my mustache off.
“Padre, are you okay!”
“Yes, Max, thank you.” I patted down my singed whiskers, troubled by the acute smell they left. “Poorly practiced at art of ignition, I’m afraid.”
“Here, let me help.”
“Max retrieved his Swiss Army pocket knife from his jeans. He took a fresh match in hand, cut off the phosphorus head, and then skillfully carved the match stick into a wooden roach clip, perfect for holding the joint at an optimum flame to inhalation ratio.
Done with his mini carpentry, he placed my marijuana joint in between the two split pieces of wood handed it to me, and said, “Here, Padre, hit that.”
I did as instructed, felt less anxious about the discernible pressure in my lungs, held my breath, and then exhaled away from Max, into his fire.
“Why Max, another kindness. Thank you so much.”
“Don’t mention it, Padre. Here, eat something.”
As the evening progressed, we chatted and laughed and got to know each other a bit. Max spoke of us upbringing in the San Francisco Bay Area, I spoke of my challenging position with some difficult parishioners. There was a moment or two that I tried to quite myself long enough to listen better and as I did so I thought that I perhaps exercised the pastoral roll of my vocation even in my altered state. I had quit drinking some thirty years ago, while in college, but before I gave it up, I did notice that people tended to open up to me even whilst we were both drunk.
That Max had taken me into his confidence pleased me greatly. I liked him very much and envied the kind of life he had put together for himself. My creativity still very latent at the start of this journey, I found myself drawn to creative types without being cognizant of that attraction. I also appreciated that people like Max and Adam, neither of them having any kind of interest in church, could tolerated and even enjoy my company. For sure, that would not have been the case if I was the kind of Christian to ‘witness’ to so-called non-believers in the attempts to get them both saved and signatories of a pledge card. I had abandoned that practice long ago.
What I had not abandoned, however, was the stress I felt under, indeed, was under by my bishop and others, to grow my congregations. Both the parishes I had come to Bisbee to serve were small in attendance and budget. The only way to change that profile was to bring more members in. I was certainly not the only pastor facing that kind of situation. For most of my training and professional life as a priest, the central anxiety of the Episcopal Church was its declining membership and finances. Though I made no overt gestures to get people like Adam and Max to church-I didn’t invite folks like them unless I sensed they were clearly interested and would appreciated that-I did want the churches to grow and hoped that people I knew casually from the café and other Bisbee confluences, would give me a looksee. I thought having a good sense of humor, saying the F word, and being a decent liberal in politics and theology would bring more people in.
I wonder if people picked up on that motive of mine, even if I didn’t always detect it in myself. Even without the weed, I had a manic energy in those days, as if I was the only one cognizant of the emergency around us. My parishioner sometimes experienced me as heavy handed and authoritarian. I didn’t like it when they didn’t embrace an initiative I liked. I didn’t like it when they complained I was spending too much time with my Bisbee cohorts and not enough with them.
I share some of my difficulty with Max. He continued to sip on his wine, I smoked more of my diminishing joint. The evening extended past the initial window that Max had imposed, but it did come time to move on. As with Adam, who made it clear it was time to go when he said it was time for a walk, I knew Max had had his fill of me, when he asked me point blank,
“Have you always been so full of shit?”
A little hurt by the comment but not unused to hearing if from others, I responded,
“Yeah, pretty much.”
I took that as the signal to end the night well and we cleaned up, exchanged pleasantries, and made it clear that it could happen again. I looked forward to that time and told him so. No expression of love or kisses for Max. Not even a hug came forth. I might have been high as a kite, but I’d learn something as practitioner of the pastoral arts. Pay attention to your intuition.
“I’ll help you out, Padre.
“Much appreciated, Max. I think I’m pretty high.”
I walked down the few steps to the Pegasus with Max behind me. I entered the steed, buckled up and gave the engine life. The radio played England Dan and John Ford Coley’s, “Light of the World.” I took the song as a sign from above that I was on track with my new course and, perhaps, even a new expression of ministry. Max helped me back out and not back down the hillside into and through the back wall of some unsuspecting couple enjoying a late dinner.
I straightened out, pulled forward quietly and focused on Max’s handy red light he used to successfully guide me along the narrow drive. As I passed him, I rolled down the window slightly,
“Peace, Sir Max.”
“Good night, Padre. Thanks for coming.”
Pleased with myself entirely, still feeling nicely warmed by weed and fire, I made my way out of the neighborhood, drove by the Advent message I chewed upon, and back onto Tombstone Canyon. It was a pleasant descent, out of Old Bisbee, down passed the darkness of the Lavender Pit- a large remnant of Bisbee’s open mining days-and back home. My wife and daughter would be asleep. I was grateful for that. In my current condition, I did not want to encounter either one.